Thursday, October 04, 2007

Canadian mystery novelist turns his brain disorder into book theme

One of my favourite mystery novelists is Howard Engel, with whose classic "hard up, not hard-boiled" detective Benny Cooperman I have passed many pleasant hours.

One morning in 2001, as Brian Bethune notes in Macleans, he woke up to discover that he could not read the morning newspaper:
When 70-year-old Howard Engel came back inside with his Globe and Mail that hot July day in 2001 and found he couldn't read his own books either, the bestselling mystery novelist headed for the hospital.

Engel had suffered a left rear stroke, resulting in the rare condition called alexia sine agraphia (can write but can't read).

Engel, then 70, set about methodically reteaching himself to read. But, in a development that astonished neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), Engel wrote an entire Benny Cooperman novel while struggling to bring his reading up to a Grade Three level:
The author is more modest; he had simply followed the age-old advice, "Write what you know," and subjected his character to the same brain insult. (Not exactly the same: "Detectives don't have strokes," Engel says dryly, "someone bashed him on the head.")

In the novel, Cooperman "has been in a coma for eight weeks after being found in a Dumpster near the university with a near-fatal blow to the head—next to the body of a young female professor, dead of a similar head trauma." And that's just the beginning ...

Cooperman undergoes the same therapies as Engel, intermingles with the same medical professionals and fellow patients, and, without ever leaving his ward, solves the mystery of who put him in the hospital and why.

Engel has stayed in form as a writer, with Benny continuing - as Engel himself does - to live with the results of his brain damage. As Bethune sums up: "Benny's no more recovered than I am," says Engel. "He can still give you four reasons for the Persian Wars, but he'll have forgotten who he's talking to."

Engel tells his story in The Man Who Forgot How to Read.

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